What the Candidates Say: STT Senate – Jean Forde

Sen. Jean Forde
Sen. Jean Forde

To inform the community on where the candidates stand, the Source sent each senatorial candidate a questionnaire with questions on pressing issues for the territory. We are running the answers in the order in which the candidates responded. (See Related Links, below.) We aim to publish all candidate responses before the General Election on November 6, contingent upon the candidates providing their responses in time. This story covers the views and planned initiatives of Sen. Jean Forde, who is running for reelection as a Democratic candidate in the St. Thomas/St. John District.

Forde is serving his second term in the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. He has chaired the Committee on Education, Youth, and Recreation, has served as a member of the Virgin Islands Workforce Development Board for seven years, and he is also the founder of the philanthropic organization Helping Ourselves Meet Excellence.

Source: The V.I. government has a $100 million-plus annual deficit, currently cannot borrow on the private market and is not paying many of its obligations, to GERS, to WAPA, territorial nonprofits, sewage treatment contractors, trash haulers, health care contractors and more. But the territory has never missed a debt payment on its $2 billion in debt. Half of that is secured by federal rum taxes which pay creditors before the territory gets control of the funds and half is secured by V.I. Gross Receipts taxes which, by statute, IRB is supposed to give to a third party to pay creditors first.

How can the territory avoid a fiscal shortfall that could force cuts to services and government layoffs in order to pay creditors first?

Forde: The ratification of the Limetree Bay Refinery Agreement has already begun the task of putting our economy on a better footing and bringing in much-needed revenues that will better allow the GVI to carry out its financial obligations to employees, vendors and creditors alike. However, it is by no means sufficient. Going forward, we will have to develop and pursue a comprehensive program of supporting existing businesses, fostering the development of new ones, and encouraging and assisting the diversification of the economy to include areas such as financial and insurance services, marine industries, local agriculture, etc.

Improving the multiplier factor, or the circulation of dollars within the economy, is a critically important factor in improving the economy and increasing government revenues. To the extent that we can maximize the consumption of local products, we can make the same dollar circulate around the territory three or four times rather than just once or twice. To make one small example, I am very supportive of supporting local farmers as well as more subsistence agriculture in and around our homes. One way that we can support our local farmers is by facilitating more of a link between our farmers and the SNAP program. We receive approximately $60 million a year in SNAP, or food stamp, benefits, and very little of that money circulates in our economy as they are spent in grocery stores that acquire their products from abroad. By implementing the program whereby farmers are provided with access to machines to process SNAP card payments from customers – as is done in jurisdictions across the U.S. – we can provide our farmers with access to a $60 million market, thus stimulating the agriculture industry, while providing our struggling families with affordable access to fresh, healthy foods.

This method of increasing currency circulation can help alleviate the financial strains on the government and increase revenue. Cutting jobs to fiscal sustainability should be a last resort.

Source: What is your fiscal and economic plan?

Forde: A comprehensive fiscal and economic plan is not mine to make, and will not be made by any single public official; it is something we must do collectively in both the public and private sectors. However, there are a number of ideas which I believe will contribute to a positive dialogue about where we need to go economically and fiscally, and how we will get there:

– Improve accountability and transparency of government contracts. Recent audit reports graphically demonstrate the alarming amount of public funds that are being wasted and misused through the award of hefty government contracts for questionable purposes and with unquestionably poor results.

– A government-wide work flow and efficiency study to determine how best we can use current personnel to accomplish more, particularly in those entities responsible for the collection of government revenues and the provision of services.

– Support the development of local small businesses. Most economists will tell you that small businesses are the true engine of any economy. Yet, most of our tax and other business incentives are geared towards larger corporations and investors. I have proposed a Small Business Incentive Plan that will reduce the tax burden for start-up businesses and stimulate the development of entrepreneurs in the territory.

As mentioned earlier, I am interested in exploring ways to foster the greater circulation of dollars within the economy by encouraging the patronization of local businesses rather than entities abroad. This will require extensive dialogue in the community and with local businesses, as this is a goal that must be accomplished by cooperation rather than by coercion.

Source: Many young Virgin Islanders are seeking educational and financial opportunity outside of the territory. What plans will you execute to encourage those that remain to stay, and to get those that have left to return?

Forde: I have quite a few millennials on my staff who grapple with this topic daily. In their eyes, the Virgin Islands is expensive, limited in professional development and does not offer the same level of compensation that they may have received had they pursued careers on the mainland. I think it’s important to acknowledge the validity of their experiences and investigate where we can improve. Personally, I don’t think we, as a territory, have done a good job identifying what our professional needs and gaps are. Even before the hurricane exodus, the Virgin Islands lacked a strong workforce in several critical industries, such as electrical engineering, nursing, teaching and social work. We are far overdue for a comprehensive workforce status report to highlight exactly who we should be recruiting.

While I have full faith in the University of the Virgin Islands, we must continue to encourage our young Virgin Islanders to go off-island to expose them to other cultures and experiences. This will not only create more well-rounded citizens, but will also give these students an opportunity to truly appreciate the beauty and blessings of home. We must make returning home attractive and feasible.

To this end, I have successfully drafted and sponsored legislation that has raised both the private and public sector minimum wages. This increase will have a ripple effect up the pay scale and afford more negotiating power to skilled professionals who choose to stay in the territory or for those hoping to return. This increase, coupled with a comprehensive workforce status report, are actionable ways in which we can make returning to the Virgin Islands more attractive.

Source: What would you propose to address the collapse of GERS in light of the $3 billion-plus shortfall and projected exhaustion of all funds between 2020 and 2023?

Forde: We must take a careful look at the current plan to extend the life of GERS by five years while we search for additional options. I believe that we could bring back legislation, rejected by the previous Legislature, to increase tax on vehicle rentals and allocate funding to GERS.

We must introduce, for entering employees, a new defined contribution structure, similar to a 401(k), to avoid the errors of the past, in which an uncertain stream of contributions from future employees are used to fund the benefits of past and future ones. This will prevent the system from increasing the unfunded liability that brought us here in the first place. In addition, we should mandate the creation of a periodic special lottery, whose proceeds would be exclusively designated for the GERS.

Realistically, we must explore discussions with the federal government to discuss a bailout for GERS and begin dialogue with lawmakers of both parties. There is no realistic plan for saving GERS which will not involve a huge infusion of cash, and we simply don’t having the borrowing capacity.

Source: How will you help make government more transparent?

Forde: Our government must set a new trend of increasing its level of communication with the community as communication is often a critically overlooked aspect of governance. I am personally often critical of our government’s communication, or in many cases, lack thereof. It is incredibly important that as policy makers, we are not only transparent, but are reliable and honest. I do my part to communicate with constituents via news releases and social media about the work that I’m doing on their behalf.

Furthermore, penalty clauses should be added to legislation to hold departments and agencies accountable to its responsibilities to the people of the Virgin Islands. Many times we have legislation in place to govern how departments and agencies function, but we lack the power by law to penalize these entities.

Source: How do you feel about legalization of marijuana and why?

Forde: At this point in time, the majority of states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medical or for adult recreational use, and a growing number of Caribbean jurisdictions are preparing to travel the same path. However, the tenuous nature of this matter with the federal government means that at minimum, each state must have a well-run regulatory structure to minimize the possibilities for abuse, and to ensure that marijuana grown in one jurisdiction is not diverted to another.

Not only do I believe that we have to stop sending our young men to jail for an economic activity that U.S. corporations are now making millions from legally, but I believe that there is significant economic and revenue potential for the territory, if legalization is done right. A Chamber of Commerce funded study in 2016 found that the market for medical marijuana in the Virgin Islands would not be large enough to fund the regulatory costs required (particularly because labs, etc. would have to be duplicated on St. Thomas and St. Croix since federal maritime rules would forbid the transportation of cannabis between STT and STX; and possibly even between STT and STJ). As such, it is my position that the only viable path forward is towards a properly regulated system that allows adult recreational use. If we accept that we are a tourism destination, we must recognize that it would be economically irresponsible to wait until all the other states and our competitors in the region have moved towards legalization.

Source: What can you as an elected official do to help alleviate violent crime in the territory?

Forde: Violent crimes have been an unfortunate reality for many Virgin Islanders in recent history. As an elected Senator, I intend to continue exploring legislative means to both prevent violent crimes and rehabilitate offenders. First and foremost, I truly believe that education is the key. Teaching our young men and women to hone their communication and conflict resolution skills will only lead to a decrease in violent measures. I fully support youth prevention programs that attempt to break the ‘school to prison pipeline’ and offer alternative solutions for marginalized youth. Anger management and prevention NGOs like the Family Resource Center and My Brother’s Workshop are paramount to the territory’s efforts in reducing violent crime, and they deserve our continued support. Furthermore, investing in athletics programs and mandating the re-establishment of the VI Commission on Youth are also priorities of mine that can alleviate violent crime in the territory.

Although education has a direct impact on decreasing the prevalence of violent crimes in a community, raising minimum wage can also play a positive role. When people are less financially stressed, they are able to explore their passions and relax in their environments. This understanding, coupled with watching my own mother work incredibly hard for minimum wage, are what led me to support and successfully pass legislation that raised both the private ($7.25/hr-$10.25/hr) and public ($20,000/year-$27,000/year) sectors. All Virgin Islanders, regardless of their place or time of birth, race or religion deserve access to a quality and safe standard of living.

Some other feasible solutions to our violent crime issue are interventions like drug decriminalization, in prison education, strengthening laws on assault weapons and understanding that violence is going ‘viral’. Targeting these more banal but no less important forms of intimidation and coercion can help reduce the spillover of violence in to the real world.

Source: How do you see your role in overseeing government agencies?

Forde: Oversight hearings force disclosure of crucial information to policymakers and the public. Often, it is through legislative hearings that we learn about serious issues or malfeasance that must be corrected. I take this matter very seriously, as every commissioner who has appeared in front of my committee will attest. Often it leads to difficult relationships with various agency heads, but the simple fact is that holding them accountable, even when it means putting their feet to the fire when necessary, is part of my responsibility and is part of what we are elected to do.

Through appropriations and the budget process, we influence and determine department priorities. For example, I sponsored legislation mandating the placement of maintenance personnel in our territory’s schools, and also established a line-item of $750K in the budget to fund maintenance costs.

Source: Why are you running and why should voters choose you instead of another candidate?

Forde: I can humbly say that I am one of the most hardworking senators in the 32nd Legislature as it relates to putting forth legislation to improve the quality of life for all Virgin Islanders. I am proud of my staff and colleagues for supporting my sponsored legislation to increase the minimum in both the private and public sector. Through my legislation, Virgin Islanders in the private sector who earned minimum wage, have seen an increase of more than $3 an hour. Soon, the minimum wage increase for all government workers from $20,000 to $27,040 will be law.

I am seeking the support of my fellow Virgin Islanders so that I can continue to promote education, protect and uplift our beloved elders and secure the diversification of our economy. I will serve as a level-headed voice of reason who now brings needed experience in a body which we know will be made up of mostly new members. My record is clear. When my community needed me most, I sprang to action and collaborated with private partners to donate tens of thousands of dollars in hurricane relief supplies in response to the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I’ve also donated supplies and equipment to our public schools, including but not limited to 50 engraved dining tables, air condition units, bicycles, and art supplies. I encourage people interested in learning more about my platform and accomplishments to visit my website: www.jforde4senate.com.

Source: What will you do to mitigate the effects of climate change on the territory?

Forde: In the past 20 years, climate change legislation has multiplied 20 times over. Mismanagement of natural resources and the increase of greenhouse gases have compounded the effects of climate change and natural disasters in coastal regions. While our small stature leaves little agency for actually slowing down the effects of climate change, we can and must do our best to mitigate the inevitable. We must pass legislation that will force all governmental departments to integrate climate mitigation into their work plans. The major issues we, as a small island community, will likely see are increased temperatures both atmospheric and ocean temperatures. This will have damaging impacts that affect all aspects of our economy and our lives. A few examples where we as a community and our government in particular can take direct action are:

– Increased sea surface temperature are negatively impacting our coral reefs which are a major driver of tourism and a major barrier against powerful storm surge. We need better enforcement of building code by DPNR to limit sediment runoff into coastal areas which harm our reefs.

– Increased variability in weather and climate leading to increased rainfall over shorter periods and longer periods of little to no rainfall. Events like the drought from a few years ago will be more common. Creating systems that can measure these impacts and allow us to declare states of emergency during these periods, or prepare by investing in more resilient and reusable water resource for agriculture industries are extremely important.

– Requiring departments like Public Works or VIWMA to implement infrastructure that accounts for increased patterns in storm surge, and rainfall so that our roads and coastlines are resilient and prepared for what’s coming. We must decrease our reliance on single-use plastics and set up sustainable recycling endeavors.

– Creating a Land and Water Use Plan for the Virgin Islands that takes into account the negative environmental impacts of climate change we will face in the next century is vitally important. The current LWP was written more than 20 years ago before we knew what types of impacts that can be expected from climate change.

We as Virgin Islanders must be prepared for the impacts of climate change. We’ve already seen some of the affects and it’s clear that we were not as prepared as we should have been. Larger, more powerful and frequent hurricanes like Irma and Maria are our new normal and if we expect to survive them our communities, our economy, and our infrastructure must be more resilient. That will take all of us, including every department in the executive branch, to work together to implement policies and action plans that understand and mitigate the effects of climate change. We must look to our regional neighbors and adopt efficient strategies to mitigate flooding, soil instability, waste mismanagement, and natural resource depletion. Without action plans we will continue to be unprepared for what is coming at us in terms of climate change.

Source: What is your plan to improve the schools and the quality of public education in the territory?

Forde: As chairman of the Committee on Education, Youth, and Recreation, I take my educational oversight responsibility seriously. However, it is the responsibility of the executive branch to channel the Department of Education’s funding from superfluous administrative and executive positions, where there is far too much overlap of responsibilities, to supplies and equipment and the increase of teacher salaries.

Overall, we need better funding for teacher salaries to attract, incentivize, and retain our most experienced and capable teachers. While promoting literacy in our schools, the department must also stay abreast of new tools in education, with a focus on S.T.E.M. and increasing the use of technology in our classrooms to keep our students competitive with those on the mainland.

As legislators, we have to promote accountability from the top down and the bottom up of the education system. When officials come before us, they must not only answer to us, but to the people of the territory. The Legislature has to become a better system of checks and balances.

Source: How will you ensure that adequate funding is put toward healthcare services in the territory?

Forde: We cannot separate the question of funding health care services from the question of access to affordable health insurance coverage. Many of the pieces of the puzzle must be dealt at the federal level, and we must raise our voice strenuously in support of health policy equity. For that reason, I am in enthusiastic support of the Medicaid Payment Fairness to the Territories Act, which has been proposed in Congress by Delegate Plaskett and other congressional delegates from the territories. However, we cannot put all our eggs in the federal basket, simply because we have no control over the actions of the federal government, only of our own. As such, while we push for a change in federal policy, we will have to set priorities at the local level to ensure that quality health care is available to all, regardless of ability to pay.

Access to affordable health insurance for the private sector is a major component of properly funding. We must revisit past attempts to establish private sector employer pooling or universal health care. Under V.I. Law, our hospitals must provide emergency and stabilization treatment to patients without regard to their ability to pay, leading some to state that we have “socialized medicine” without having a payment mechanism for it. Ultimately, we must find a way to finance health care coverage for all, both federally and locally.

Source: A significant amount of post-hurricane recovery on St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas was made possible by non-profit organizations and volunteer groups. But private donations are down and budget deficits make more funding difficult. What would you, as a legislator, suggest to help support these community groups?

Forde: When FEMA comes in to an area, their main function is to support the local government in establishing and carrying out various emergency support functions. Last year, the V.I. Government saw an unprecedented level of damage to personal and public property. The private sector did a phenomenal job in assisting the local and federal governments in the response and recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Individuals, businesses, NGOs, and nonprofits sprang into action and remain active over a year after the initial impact.

The Legislature of the Virgin Islands has consistently funded some of these nonprofits, even before the storm. In these recent budget allocation meetings, I have continued to advocate for supporting these fundamental organizations. Public/private partnerships like these are the crux of any long-term recovery. Outside of my scope of work as a senator, I also frequently volunteer with groups like All Hands and Hearts, AmeriCorps, and the St. Thomas Recovery Team. Supporting these groups with money AND time has proven to be a rewarding experience for my staff and I. One of FEMA’s mantras is ‘recovery begins and ends locally’ and I am blessed to have witnessed such strength within these islands.

As the recovery continues on, I urge the executive branch to continue improving upon their preparedness procedures. I look forward to better understanding the Housing and Finance Authority’s plan to utilize the Community Development Block Grant, Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds that have been allocated by the U.S. Congress. As the government funds and implements public sector improvements, we will continue to lean on the dedicated private sector. By staying involved with the islands’ Long-Term Recovery Groups, I will continue to use my influence to advocate for the support of the private sector entities hard at work as we move through our long-term recovery.

Source: What do you as a senator believe should be priorities for infrastructure, parking and walkability on St. John? On St. Croix? On St. Thomas?

Forde: All three of our islands desperately need to upgrade their public and private infrastructures. Through a public lens, the people of the Virgin Islands deserve safe, sound and easily accessible services. This includes, but is not limited to, modern and sustainable schools, hospitals, roadways, drainage systems, ADA compliance, and rationalized public transportation. Establishing park-and-ride facilities to enter and exit our town areas will reduce congestion and parking issues, lower transportation costs for individuals and families, and decrease our territory’s carbon footprint.

We must improve walkability on waterfront, around the hospitals, and on main roads by engaging in more sidewalk construction. This will constitute a major expense, as the cost of sidewalk construction exceeds $1 million per mile. Additionally, new sidewalk construction will entail the purchase of significant amounts of land adjacent to the current right of way. The monies, however, will have to be found, as walkability is one of the most important public health initiatives that the government can undertake. The health benefits that communities stand to gain by increasing walkability and accessibility in critical areas is a no-brainer when examining through a cost/benefit analysis.

Another priority of mine is to develop a comprehensive land and water use plan for the territory. Furthermore, we desperately need to carry out a comprehensive study of road drainage in the territory so as to prevent the continued destruction of our roadways by poorly directed rain and stormwater runoff. The impact of our built environment on our natural environment is indefinitely intertwined and should be respected and leveraged to the best of our ability.

Source: The Revised Organic Act of 1954 gives the V.I. Legislature the power to establish a USVI constitution by any means it chooses. Currently, the territory cannot charge different property tax rates to different parts of the territory. The territory could set up property tax districts if it enacted a constitution. What should the Legislature do in regards to a USVI constitution?

Forde: If the history of the first five Constitutional Conventions are any guide, there is a tremendous degree of confusion, among the public and policymakers alike, about the difference between a constitution and status. This is confirmed by the fact that every single one of the constitutions failed, partly because the documents produced were attempting to address matters that simply cannot be addressed under the current status of unincorporated territory. In short, I believe that we must make the general decision about who and what we want to be as a people, because that is the decision that sets the parameters under which the any shaping of a constitution must take place. It is time to restart the process of educating the community on status for the reestablishment of a status commission. After the people of the V.I. make that determination regarding status, we will then be a process of moving on to write a constitution.

At the same time, it is undeniable that there are certain basic issues of governance that cannot be addressed while we have no power to amend the foundational documents that govern the structure of or government. As such, until we can carry out the admittedly complex, difficult and lengthy task of building consensus on major issues surrounding our future, it would be expedient to adopt the Revised Organic Act of 1954 and adopt the proper amendments. Some of the larger issues that we have sought to address in a constitutional document, such as the definition of a Virgin Islander, the primacy of local laws vis a vis federal law, etc.

I am not committed to the concept of property tax districts until it can be examined in much greater detail. I am painfully aware of how property tax districts can lead to decisions to tie funding for vital goods and services, such as education. I am further aware of how property tax districts have contributed to and perpetuated significant funding inequities in important public goods such as education.